Commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Refugee Convention

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
Benjamin Franklin Room
Washington, DC
April 6, 2011

SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you all. Thank you and good morning, and I apologize to all of you who are here with us in the State Department in the Ben Franklin Room and everyone who has joined us from the embassies that are represented on the screen. There’s a lot going in Washington right now, and I was unavoidably delayed.

But I could not have come in at a better time, as Andrea Mitchell, who has covered the State Department for a number of secretaries of state and through many different crises was pointing out how much the work of the State Department and USAID depends upon the support, the support of the Congress and the American public to do the work that we do in diplomacy and development. And this is an occasion that really highlights that, so thank you for joining us in celebrating the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Convention Related to the Status of Refugees.

I am delighted to be joined here by the Under Secretary Maria Otero, whose responsibilities include the work that Eric Schwartz as our assistant secretary for refugees and many other things carries out on a daily basis. I’ve had the opportunity to work with both Maria and Eric in the past, and I am just delighted that they are at the forefront of our efforts. And also to Alex Aleinikoff, the deputy high commissioner of the Office of the UN Commissioner for Refugees, thank you for being here.

And of course, you’ve already heard about our distinguished honoree Larry Hollingworth. I want to personally congratulate the honorees and their families and particularly to add my voice to the words that have already been said about each of you. Each of the honorees was born in a different time and a different place, yet each also came to understand that if he or she failed to help, others would suffer and even die. And without fanfare, and without ever expecting they would get an honor at the State Department in the year 2011, they stepped up and did what needed to be done.

Like Captain Mbaye Diagne, who lost his life while rescuing strangers from genocide. He was a Senegalese army officer deployed to Rwanda as a U.N. military observer. The peacekeepers, as we well remember, had been ordered not to protect civilians, but when the killing began, he could not stand by. He took people out of harm’s way. He saved 600 lives before he was killed by a stray mortar shell. Captain Diagne’s family joins us from our Embassy in Dakar, Senegal, and I would particularly like to welcome his widow, Yassine Mar Diop, his mother, Fatou Ndour, and his two children. Let us give another round of applause to this very brave man and the family that represents him. (Applause.)

Today also, tragically, marks the date that the genocide began in Rwanda 17 years ago. So on this day of remembrance, we turn to Kigali, Rwanda, where our second honoree, Josephine Dusabimana, joins via video link. And Josephine, we thank you. We thank you for being there with us.

Because when the killing began and terrified people began showing up at your door, you did not just take them in. You hid them in your bedroom. You found canoes for them to escape across a lake to the Congo. You saved five people in this way. Later, you took in a mother and a baby, but when soldiers burst into the house, they killed them right before your eyes. Even so, a few weeks later, Josephine once again rescued a child in harm’s way. Heroes such as Josephine have inspired Rwandans to build a different kind of society today. And Josephine, I salute and thank you for your example of such great courage and reconciliation. (Applause.)

Whenever we have an event like this at the State Department honoring people of such courage, I think it’s fair to say many of us wonder what would we have done. Would we have been there for those who were being hunted down, who were in harm’s way? Would we have reached out to help? Because in times of war and catastrophe, some people lose their moral bearings, but others find inside themselves a compass that steers a true course through fear and chaos. Larry Hollingworth is one of those people. And Larry, I understand you traveled from England to be with us today, and we thank you for being here so we can honor you in person.

In 1994, Larry headed the Sarajevo office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. His job was to negotiate humanitarian access to besieged towns. He led convoys of food trucks through combat lines and evacuated hundreds of women and children to safety, and he warned the world about the dangers of Srebrenica months before those massacres happened. Those who serve in war zones discover the hard realities of trying to deliver aid, extricate refugees, negotiate ceasefires, and protect civilians. Larry Hollingworth brought courage, political acumen, and moral clarity to a seemingly impossible situation. And we need more public servants like you, Larry. Thank you so much. (Applause.)

Finally, I will turn to our Embassy in Sarajevo where I see our ambassador and where we are joined by Mina Jahic. Mina is Bosnian, and one day in 1994, she began to hear gunshots in the distance of people being executed. A bloody man stumbled out of the woods. He had been horribly beaten but had managed to escape. Mina’s neighbor turned the man away in fear, but Mina took him in and nursed him back to health. Over time, the neighbors were so inspired by Mina’s courage that they, too, helped him. Mina’s own son was executed, but the man she rescued, Ferid Spahic, lived, and he is there with Mina in Sarajevo today. Mina, we thank you, and we express great appreciation for the life you saved and for the lives of all those who were saved by people who had the courage that you showed. Thank you so much. (Applause.)

Now, all of these courageous people have one thing in common: They did not view people in trouble as strangers, as the other; they viewed them as fellow human beings, and they were unable to stand by and let brutality and violence and atrocities unfold. Today, we reaffirm America’s commitment to the protection of refugees around the world. Our mission is unchanging. We intend to save lives and restore human dignity. But we could not do it just through the programs we run and through the excellent leadership we provide and even in cooperation with the UN and many other international organizations. It takes individuals who, day after day, stand up and speak out and, more importantly, act on behalf of those who are in jeopardy.

So we salute the courage and the dedication of all those whose moral compasses did not fail them, but instead compelled them, compelled them to help in this vital endeavor of standing up for the very best values that unite all of us regardless of geography or race, tribe or religion. There is a fundamental base of universal human rights, and we are each called to recognize and protect those, and some of us are asked to do so much more. So thank you. Thank you for joining us on this 60th anniversary. Take care. God bless you. (Applause.)

PRN: 2011/528